In 1978, duly-elected delegates met at McKinley High School for a Constitutional Convention. One of the results of the 1978 Con Con was the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a public acknowledgment of the need to right some of the wrongs done Hawaiians.
It was also an attempt, flawed as it was, to give Hawaiians a political and financial base from which to rebuild a culture. OHA was, in too many respects, an extension of the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act enacted by Congress. Congress also required the HHCA be a part of the Hawaii Admission (statehood) Act of 1959. And, that too, was an acknowledgment of certain Hawaiian entitlements.
Last week, a multiethnic group of Hawaii residents asked the U.S. District Court to shut down OHA and Hawaiian homestead programs and put OHA's $337 million trust fund and the 200,000-acre Hawaiian Homes land trust back into the hands of the state for general use.
The lawsuit claims the Hawaiian programs discriminate against non-Hawaiians on the basis of race and is therefore unconstitutional. Such racial classifications are constitutional under U.S. Supreme Court rulings "only if they are narrowly tailored measures that further compelling government interests," the suit claims.
For the sake of argument, ignore how the U.S. government originally gained control of those Hawaiian lands that produced OHA's trust fund and the land trust. From a layman's viewpoint, the existence of OHA and the homestead program seem to hinge on whether the state of Hawaii has a compelling government interest in maintaining them. Another way to state the argument would be, does Hawaii need Hawaiians, and if it does, do Hawaiians need their own lands and funds in order to maintain a culture that others systematically tried to destroy.
Since the rise of the state's No. 1 industry, Hawaiian culture has been an integral part of the effort to attract tourists. If Hawaii is to continue being the "Aloha State," the descendants of the island's first inhabitants must have a way to reclaim their heritage and place in the world. And that should be a compelling government interest.